Beyond Happy Hour: Bar-Driven Programming

Chef’s Club by Food & Wine

Special events and bar-driven programming can make your restaurant a destination from open to close.

A full-service restaurant isn’t the most obvious or easiest place for bar-driven event programming, since it must serve the needs of the dining area first and foremost. But even if the bar isn’t the anchor of the venue, bar-driven programming can promote the restaurant, bring guests in during quiet hours, establish the expertise of the bar staff in a spirit or cocktail category, and keep a sit-down restaurant so full there is standing-room only.

Of course, the traditional way to bring in customers during the slow hours before dinner is to offer Happy Hour specials on food and drink. However, there are other ways that the bar can offer promotions without compromising the restaurant’s vision and service. Bar-driven events and specials can take place in the bar area, in a separate lounge, in private dining rooms, or even be self-directed from restaurant seating.

Educational Events

At Lincoln Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Chef Jenn Louis and her husband/bar manager David Welch offer short classes they call Bar Camp. Unlike most classes at bars, these are free (held during pre-service hours), and range in topics from how to stock a home bar to the history of the cocktail to how spirits are made. For an additional fee, Louis serves a family-style meal paired with cocktails made by Welch. They say the classes are a great way to capture new guests who otherwise may not know about Lincoln or their other restaurant, Sunshine Tavern.

Similarly, Mercadito restaurant in Chicago is using its lounge to hold both multi-week mixology classes and competitive hosting events at different times. And in San Francisco, agave-centric restaurant La Urbana hosts monthly mezcal educational sessions in its casual lounge area at 5 p.m. A small fee includes a tasting and an educational session with a mezcal producer or importer, who speaks about their products and the category in general.

In Pittsburgh, Braddock’s American Brasserie hosts an event called Whiskey Wednesday. Each week during Happy Hour, three bourbons or Scotches are offered as one-ounce tasting samples for a special price. These are based on education-friendly themes such as three products from one company, or three single-barrel bourbons. A local whiskey expert shares facts about the whiskey or category as guests sample it. The program has been so successful that the restaurant has begun hosting whiskey-pairing dinners as well.

Manager Eric Brown says, “Whiskey Wednesday has created a whole field of regulars for Braddock’s. They come for the whiskey and stay for the food.”


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